Want to brighten your outlook on a drab or even a sunny winter’s day?
Take along a good pair of binoculars and find some open water. With any kind of luck, you should be able to spot some colorful ducks enjoying their surroundings.
Many of these ducks (drakes or males) have some brilliant color and unusual markings.
For me, enjoying waterfowl watching is my most favorite part of birding. It’s not only their colors that I find intriguing, but being around water almost always is enjoyable.
Identifying these birds has become easier for my wife and I since we have participated in a couple of duck ID clinics and webinars in the last two years. The hands on clinic put on by the Ohio Division of Wildlife two years ago at Pickerel Creek was outstanding. We were able to drive to different locations and ID ducks. A recent webinar co-sponsored by the Michigan DNR, Michigan chapter of Ducks Unlimited, Michigan Birds, Detroit Audubon and the River Raisin Institute was a good review and offered some new information.
I highly suggest seeking a clinic or webinar that can help spot waterfowl and how to identify them by species.
We’ve put the knowledge we learned at these to use while watching ducks at numerous places including Point Mouillee on Lake Erie in Michigan and Magee Marsh Wildlife Area by Lake Erie in Ohio. You can see literally thousands of ducks at these places during migration.
But you can see a variety of species during winter in many areas, even a backyard pond if it is open. We’ve done our watching and sighting of dabblers and divers this winter on the Maumee River below the dam at Independence Dam State Park near Defiance.
I also suggest you have a good book or pamphlet that describes North American Ducks. We use Kenn Kaufman’s Field Guide to Birds of North America, Waterbirds of Ohio guidebook put out by the Ohio DOW and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Waterfowl ID Series on dabbling & diving ducks pamphlet. Download a good bird app like Audubon or Merlin on your phone. Also, take advantage of your search engine on the phone as well.
I like the search engine on my phone because I can describe certain parts and their colors and ask what kind of duck it is. An example would be: What kind of duck has a red head, white underbelly and black breast. A few different species will pop up. If you also saw a white back and black bill, it would be a common Canvasback. If you also saw a sooty or grayish back and a blue bill, it would be a Redhead.
This is why certain distinguishing marks are important. And having two sets of eyes is better than having only one. But if there are a few different species in the same area, each of you may be looking at different ducks. Make sure you both hone in on the same ducks if you question their identity.
Even with a good set of binos, you may not see distinguishing marks because the ducks may stay quite a distance from you. You may not see the red eyes of a Canvasback or the yellow eyes of a Redhead. That’s where a spotting scope would come in handy.
In the past few weeks we have seen nine different species along with hundreds of Canada geese floating along the water. We are lucky in these parts because our locale receives birds from both the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways.
In addition to the Redhead and Canvasback we’ve also seen a wood duck, common goldeneyes, common mergansers, mallards, buffle heads, lesser scaup and ring neck.
There’s also a greater scaup and we may have seen some of them but at a distance they are difficult to tell apart. The greater scaup may show green iridescence on its head and neck. The lesser scaup may also show green iridescence but can also show purple. Purple iridescence is never seen on the greater scaup. The greater scaup also has a more rounded head while the lesser scaup has a more oval head.
Blue and green wing teal, which migrate south early and arrive in late spring, often are more identified by their head than their wings. In flight, you can see the color on their wings, but when sitting on the water, you often don’t. The blue wing has a vertical white stripe on its head while the green wing has a green and red head.
Ducks are classified as dabblers or divers.
One big difference between the two is that dabblers spring up directly from the water to fly while divers usually run across the surface of the water like a common loon to take flight.
Dabblers rarely dive as they tend to feed at the surface or tip up with their butt in the air to reach under the water. They usually sit higher in the water. Divers feed at the surface or dive deep underwater and will resurface several yards from where they dived.
Divers have large feet attached to short legs situated far back on the body which helps them propel under water. Dabblers have smaller feet and their legs are situated farther forward.
Familiar species of dabbling ducks include mallards, northern shovelers, American wigeons, American black ducks, gadwalls, blue-winged teals, northern pintails and cinnamon teals. Familiar species of diving ducks include the Ring-necked duck, Redhead, Canvasback and scaup.
While looking for ducks we have seen mature and immature bald eagles, blue herons, mute swans and gulls around the water.
We have also seen “regular” birds. While sitting near a tree for a few minutes one day, we noticed a male and female cardinal, red-belled wood pecker, robins, white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse and juncos there.
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On the local scene, Lima birder Mandy Roberts reports two Peregrine Falcons returned to the Chase building Wednesday. She had been checking on the building for about two weeks when she found them circling the building chasing pigeons.
“Eventually they both settled in on the building. The male snoozed on top of the nest box while the female stayed right above the nest box on the ledge,” she said. “I did manage photos and the one has the band colors to match Loretta. I will need to go back with better light to get the numbers/letters to be sure, but it appears to be her.”
Al Smith is a freelance outdoor writer. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @alsmithFL.